by Chuck Mindenhall
Every kid who ever caught a Bruce Lee film has at one point envisioned taking out an entire playground of attackers, one by one, in the cool, destiny-controlled way of the master himself. Lee inspired westerners not just to peek into the sphere of martial arts, but to lose yourself in them. To become them. Not to go against the odds, but think about the very nature of odds — to redefine them. He made the impossible possible, which to a kid is still the fine line in which the whole universe sways so eagerly back and forth between.
Lee became a global cult figure in the 1970s because he toed this line in film, which were equally miraculous and campy. It’s hard to throw a kick to this day without revealing the impetus of its source material. If there’s an exotic watah or keeyah behind it, Bruce Lee authored the whole damn thing.
Lee permeated culture in such a way; he had a grip on human potential. He’s ingrained in so much of our unconscious movement. He turned Hong Kong into a backdrop of wonder, his nunchucks an extension to the gears in his mind. His very name became an aspiration, an association to some golden beyond. If there were no Bruce Lee, there’d be no UFC. It was imagination that wondered what style beats what.
For decades, Lee’s precepts of fighting were behind the general query.
On Nov. 27, Lee — who died tragically of cerebral edema in 1973 at the age of 32 — would have been celebrating his 75th birthday. It’s hard to look back on his life and not see his many contributions as extraordinary. His famous films in the early-’70s — from Way of the Dragon to Fists of Fury to my personal favorite, Enter the Dragon — were but a vehicle for a philosopher who considered himself a martial artist first and foremost. In some ways, film was the necessary evil for him to get across the ideologies he not only believed in, but put into practice.
Lee’s legacy remains rooted in those teachings. He was an innovator of the martial arts, who began in Wing Chun as a teenager before developing a hybrid art that he called Jun Fan Gun Fu (Bruce Lee’s Gung Fu), which he brought to America. He eventually founded Jeet Kune Do —the “Way of the Intercepting Fist” — that Lee described as “non-classical” and as a “direct expression of one's feelings with the minimum of movements and energy.” He dealt in philosophical paradox — at the bottom of his style lay the rudiments of nature. They live on today: The art of detachment…using no way as the way…absorbing what is useful, rejecting what is useless…realizing that water was the essence of gung-fu.
Being like water. Just like water. A pursuit that translates for eastern and western minds alike. Water, which also separates the two. Water, that is so perfectly unmastered.
“Empty your mind,” he said. “Be formless…shapeless…like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. If you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend.”
Lee had a mystic’s touch when dealing in such terrain. It was him who also said that, “A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.” He was a Chinese Mark Twain, who could destroy physical matter with a one-inch punch, a technique he showed off at the Long Beach International Karate Championships in 1964. He incorporated dance and choreography into the equation, while at the same time doing away with the stigma of their theatrics.
Part of Lee’s enduring appeal is that the nonfiction version was so much more fascinating than the presentation on film. Yet he translated because he believed in what he did.
His conviction, it can be said, traveled through his mediums and into the collective hunch. This was far more to Bruce Lee than a man who could kick a fair amount of ass.
Still, the man himself never saw the barrier he couldn’t punch through. Lee overcame a broken back in 1970, which should have put an abrupt end to not only his participation in the martial arts but his burgeoning film career. Yet all of his pop culture transcendence — his annihilation of Kareem Abdul-Jabaar in The Game of Death, for instance, the incomplete film he was shooting when he died — came well after being told he was done.
Not only that, but imagine the hostility of racial tensions and stereotypes he fought against, from both sides of the ledger. It was him who made it okay for westerners to train in gung fu, and who paved the way for Asian actors in major roles. It wasn’t easy. Remember that it was David Carradine that landed the lead role in Kung Fu during that time, not Bruce Lee. The prejudices he came up against were real. Lee affected culture, which is about as much as one man can accomplish.
It’s right to say that Bruce Lee was ahead of his time, but that doesn’t cover it all. He was also very thoroughly of his time. And he brought to life a lot that stood before him; the traditions in martial arts that he helped to modify, as well as the vitality of the disciplines within those arts.
His evolutions could point in any direction.
All of the contributions that Lee made to the martial arts, to film, to race relations, to culture — indeed, to the single-file forces of tyranny coming at a kid on the playground, if even in imagination — it all goes into the man. Bruce Lee is, was, and will continue to be, a legend.
The arrangement of his tenses, like his movements, remain pretty fluid.
Sort of like water.
Happy birthday, Bruce.